Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
A young John Kennedy Toole in the Caribbean. Photo courtesy the Toole Papers, Special Collections, Tulane University.
In the spring of 1969 on the side of a country road outside Biloxi, Mississippi a blue Chevy Chevelle sputtered out of gas. A thirty-one-year-old English professor lay lifeless in the driver’s seat. One end of a garden hose had been perched in the rear window, the other end placed in the exhaust pipe.
A few hours later the phone rang in the professor’s home in New Orleans. His mother, who had not heard from him in two months, received the call she had been dreading. Her only child, John Kennedy Toole, had killed himself. She was ashamed and heartbroken, as all her aspirations for him expired into a silent nothingness…
Until she remembered, he had left behind a manuscript.
Toole had written the novel in 1963 during his last few months in the Army in Puerto Rico. Returning to New Orleans, he was convinced it was his masterpiece. He edited it for two years under the direction of Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster. But he eventually gave up as his mind slipped into the snares of mental illness. For years the manuscript lay abandoned in a box atop a cedar armoire. But in 1972 his mother retrieved it and began submitting it for publication. It eventually found a champion in novelist Walker Percy. And eleven years after Toole’s suicide A Confederacy of Dunces was published.
As he had always wished, Toole’s book traveled to book shelves and into the hands of readers all over the world. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. It’s been translated into 22 languages with over 30 editions. All of this came from that document he crafted in Puerto Rico. Yet it is rather remarkable to consider that no one seems to know where the original manuscript is.
I have been researching and writing about Toole for seven years, digging through archives, interviewing his friends and family, trying to decipher Toole’s character, his fears, his desires, his angels and demons. And I have often contemplated that missing manuscript. His mother claimed she discarded all the “Gottlieb edits” in order to showcase her son’s “pure genius.” Still, seeing how Toole altered the creation that he felt defined him would certainly offer insight into his final years. But no one I interviewed seemed to know its whereabouts. The Toole Papers at Tulane University does not have it, nor does the Walker Percy Papers at UNC Chapel Hill. Some of Toole’s friends had heard that Percy’s typist threw the “badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon” away after she retyped it. Walker’s wife, Bunt, didn’t believe that story. She suspected it might be in Walker’s miscellaneous papers that had been boxed-up after his death in 1990. But the family scoured the boxes and found nothing.
I had nearly given up on the question of the original manuscript until a year ago when I interviewed Lynda Martin, the sister of Toole’s best friend in high school. “The manuscript?” she said in a soft southern accent. “Yes, well I have it in my closet here at home.” I nearly dropped the phone as she explained Toole’s mother had given it as a gift to her brother after the novel was published. When her brother passed away in 2008, she acquired it. It had a few penned-in edits, she explained, but not drastic revisions. “I don’t know what to do with it, really” she said. “I considered selling it at auction.” Christie’s estimated its value up to $20,000, if deemed authentic. She hadn’t called Sotheby’s yet. “Please” I begged, “just hold on to it. I’m on my way down.”
In a few weeks I was on a plane, heading to Louisiana, contemplating how I could come up with the money to buy the manuscript from Lynda, or at least convince her to donate it to an archival library. I asked my friend, filmmaker Joe Sanford, to join me on the drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. When we arrived, Lynda, a beautiful blond woman in her early seventies, showed us into her dining room where she had prepared a spread of Toole memorabilia: newspaper articles, a bottle of Dr. Nut, letters from his mother, including the note to Lynda’s brother offering him the manuscript. In the middle of these artifacts she had placed a black binder filled with hundreds of yellowed pages.
I sat down and opened it. The earthy smell of old paper wafted into the air. “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. I ran my fingers over the letters of the title page. I could feel the impressions of the typewriter keys. I almost lept from my seat. I wanted to grab my phone to call my agent and editor in New York to confirm it was real. They were already contemplating the publicity this could gather. “Biographer Finds Long Lost Manuscript” the headlines would read. And my book would fly off the shelves.
But then, as I turned the page, my heart sank. The letters felt smooth. On the lower left corner I saw faint specks of toner, the telltale marks of a photocopier. I flipped through the pages, comparing them with images I had taken from the Toole Papers at Tulane. Toole’s mother had gifted Lynda’s brother with a photocopy of a typescript set by LSU Press shortly before publication. The “edits” in red ink were mere typographical corrections.
I sat dismayed. Looking up from the binder, I found Lynda smiling eagerly. But the smile soon left her face. I explained that she had a document with some history tied to the novel, but not twenty-thousand dollars’ worth. It was not the original manuscript, not even a copy of the original. At first she seemed puzzled, perhaps wondering how these pages could fool her and her family for so many years. $20,000 would have helped her immensely. There was a For Sale sign in front of her house. She was moving to Florida to be closer to her children, she explained. But Lynda had lived long enough to understand the limited value of things. What were these pages after all? Even if it was the original manuscript it would not embody her dear friend who had suffered such a terrible end.
We sat through an awkward silence and then she took out a little index card filled with notes. “You asked me about my memories of Ken” she said smiling. “Yes, would you mind sharing them with me?” We moved into her living room, set up the camera, and she talked about her many recollections of a curious and witty young man with aspirations to become a writer.
She told us about how he had remarkable talent for mimicry, his ability to impersonate a person’s voice, accent, gestures, everything with astounding accuracy. She talked about how he used to explore the many neighborhoods of New Orleans, observing the people and how he used to create characters from those observations, characters like Officer Romigary, Tammy from the Irish Channel, and TJ her Italian boyfriend. She laughed as she remembered how Ken, the name his Louisiana friends called him, used to sit in the bathroom listening to Lynda’s elderly next door neighbor, Irene Reilly, yell out the most offensive and colorful obscenities in all of New Orleans. Indeed, Lynda had witnessed Toole as a teenager cataloging the characters that would later appear in his novel: Officer Mancuso, Santa Battaglia, and Ignatius’s mother, Irene Reilly. And for the first time, I realized Toole had been writing A Confederacy of Dunces in his head for nearly a decade before he set it to paper.
Earlier that morning, I thought I was going to find a rare artifact of literary history, which would help me gain a clearer picture of Toole’s descent towards suicide. But Lynda’s memories were far more profound to me than dissecting how Toole edited his famous novel. Of course, I had to report to my agent and my editor that I had not found the manuscript. But I took heart in what Lynda freely offered me: a vivid portrait of a young aspiring artist, exploring a city filled with unique characters. No documents in the Toole Papers offered such a depiction, a depiction far more valuable than his manuscript.
In writing the biography of Toole, it was always tempting to bemoan lost documents like the suicide note his mother destroyed or the manuscript, especially since his letters are so few and many of his friends and family have passed away. But Lynda reminded me Toole was not a specimen to dissect. As she spoke there was a glimmer in her eyes and an enthusiasm in her voice, as she tried to capture the ineffable quality of his personality that made him so rare — a quality that readers only catch a glimpse of in his novel. He was not only a talented writer, she explained, but a treasured friend, gone too soon. It was my job to convey the complexities of his life. And Lynda’s recollections proved I didn’t need his manuscript to do that.
I still have hopes someone, someday will uncover the manuscript, hidden in a box in an attic or brought to light during an estate sale. After all, those pages hold the first impressions of the creative wave that had been building in Toole for much of his short life. But whether or not it’s found, the creative energy cranked out of his typewriter in Puerto Rico in 1963 transcends the original pages. It endures translation, criticism and shifts in generations of readers. For his novel is a parade of victorious laughter, just like those famous jazz funerals in New Orleans: the solemn dirges leading to the grave are momentary; once the deceased is laid to rest a celebration erupts, flowing into the streets, a carnival of song and dance, blaring triumphantly.
A streetcar along the lake brings you to a low-rise white building where artists and artisans further their craft. It’s evening, somewhat deserted, but turn down one hallway and the tools of their trade remain in public view. Turn another corner and photographic art lines the walls.In a secluded room: a sea of café tables. Free coffee at the back. Small lamps on each table for warm candle-lit effect as the house lights dim and the stage lights go on. Rows of seating near the entrance – for stragglers and for the lazy and for the shy.This has been the setting for most of the literary readings I’ve attended in the past four years. The Brigantine Room is one of four venues within Toronto’s Harbourfront complex where the most private of writers take the stage and transform into the most gregarious of orators. Or they try. Or some of them try.Maisonneuve ran an article last month bemoaning the state of the literary reading. Provocatively titled “Why are literary readings so excruciatingly bad?” the piece deconstructed the reading and argued, quite reasonably, for greater effort on the part of organizers, writers, and audience alike to transform what is often a flat and flaccid affair into a spirited, even enthralling, experience.First, the venue must be suitable. Bars and cafés are often used, and while they create an ambiance of sorts and allow the speakers and the spoken-to to be appropriately lubricated (which, not incidentally, allows the venue itself to reap some economic reward), the downside of all this is excessive kitchen noise, the clinking of glasses and bottles, and people who have become so obnoxiously lubricated that the quiet little literary event happening in their midst can’t compete.Over the years, the Brigantine Room has taken some of the best trappings of the café experience and integrated them into a more controlled literary environment. Effective lighting, café tables, noiseless refreshments. A romantic stillness greets the author who can then take the audience on a journey, unruffled by extraneous noise.Troublingly, for the most recent reading I attended – an evening with Irvine Welsh – the organizers had removed the café tables, replacing them with rows of chairs, presumably to accommodate the hordes of fans, and there was no coffee, or any other refreshment to be had. Not too sure what to make of that.At any rate, once the ambiance is set, the writer must become an effective orator. The author could assume character voices. Deborah Eisenberg memorably slipped into a whole range of voices for the characters in her short story “Some Other, Better Otto”, from Twilight of the Superheroes at a reading two years ago. Irvine Welsh also added drama to a reading from his most recent novel Crime by voicing its characters.Visual aids can be effective. When I heard scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki “read” from a recent autobiography, what he really gave was a slideshow presentation, which, coupled with his engaging running commentary, made for a breezy event. Some of the best “readings” I’ve been to have incorporated one or more of: tangential asides, slideshows, interviews, panel discussions, and Q and A.Some authors, even without dramatic or visual aids, are just so naturally affable that the audience is with them right from the start. A number of years ago, in a large theatrical venue, John Irving regaled us with excerpts from what was then his latest opus, along with passages from a work in progress. His seemingly natural ease at the podium kept the audience riveted.Then of course there’s the audience member, without whose focus and attentiveness the whole endeavor could unravel. There are times, of course, when the mind wanders. Every audience member has his own narrative playing out in his head, and it’s not unheard of for a speaker to unwittingly say something during the course of the reading that triggers some private thought in the hapless audience member, who then drifts off for several minutes and returns, hopelessly dispirited and lost – unable to simply flip back a few pages.It’s a bit of a crapshoot. Some of the finest writers aren’t comfortable in such a public setting – and it shows. Some venues are better suited to watching the hockey game than being transported on a literary journey. And some listeners just need to sharpen their concentration skills a little bit. But when it all comes magically together, and when all sides rise to the challenge, a literary reading can linger with you long after the house lights come up and you’ve boarded that streetcar for the lonely ride back to reality.
1. “And if I perish, I perish.”
Anna Solomon is not the first person I would’ve expected to write a Jewish novel.
I met Anna seven years ago – we were both students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – and while I knew Anna was Jewish, it wasn’t the first, or second, or even third thing I would’ve expected her to mention about her identity. Writer. Woman. From Gloucester, Mass. All those would have come first.
Her fiction, back then – and we had this in common – was scrubbed of any obviously Jewish characters or themes. The short story I remember most from workshop, which eventually became “What Is Alaska Like?” (One Story, April 2006), is about a chambermaid in Blue Lake Lodge, a roadside motel on Boston’s North Shore.
“There was no lake at Blue Lake,” Anna writes in the story. “The Lodge was a stucco motel on the Clam River, about an hour north of Boston. The stink came twice a day with low tide: mud and mussel shells and half-eaten crabs baking in the sun like the darkest casserole. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the smell, but these tourists from Ohio would stuff their faces into the sink like there was an answer in there. They wore visors that got in their way. ‘Sewage?’ they’d ask me. ‘Sulfur?’ ”
Her characters are Darlene and Jimmy and Ellen Crane. Even her rivers are treyf. It feels about as far from a depiction of Jewish experience as I can imagine.
Which is why, I’ll admit, I was surprised when I learned that Anna’s first novel, The Little Bride, released in September, is the story of Minna, a Jewish mail-order bride from Odessa, Ukraine, and her marriage to Max, a rigidly Orthodox Jew living on the “Sodokota” plains in the late 19th century. It’s about Am Olam, or “Eternal People,” a little-known historical movement that began in the 1800s, when immigrant Jews moved to the Western states and founded communal, agrarian colonies. Its most vivid scenes are Jewish, involving prayerbooks, teffilin, and kippot. The inscription is Hebrew: V’ka’asher ovadet ovadeti, “And if I perish, I perish.”
It’s a book that’s Jewish in its kishkes.
I sat down, recently, with Anna at a Park Slope, Brooklyn, coffee shop. We talked about her tenure a decade ago as National Public Radio’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief, when she spent 10 days in South Dakota producing a story about ranchers and the farm bill – an experience that would provide much of the scenic grist for her novel. (“I was totally blown away by the South Dakota landscape, especially the land near the Missouri River, the rolling hills – it feels like the motion is in the earth itself. And the air, how it just constantly seemed to be moving in one direction … very hot, gusting, dry air. I felt like I was in the middle of a continent.”) She recalled the afternoon she spent riding around with U.S. Senator Tom Daschle in his SUV. (“He’s just like he seems: short and friendly; speaks like a politician.”) We covered her approach to research. (“I’m not, as a reader, interested in how many buttons a dress had in the 1970s compared to the 1920s – so I don’t care as a writer.”) But we returned, time and again, to thorny questions of Jewish identity.
“I’m still getting used to the idea of getting called a ‘Jewish Writer,’” Anna said. “What does that even mean?”
2. “My Hair Got Curly”
Anna Solomon was one of only a few Jews at my son’s bris in Iowa City. Most of my friends from Workshop who came weren’t Jewish. As it turned out, we couldn’t even find a moyle to perform the ritual circumcision. The closest one lived in Chicago, some three hours away, and couldn’t drive to our home on Shabbat, the day of the ceremony.
When I asked Anna what she remembers about that day, she recalls talking another writer through it. He had never been to a bris and was, to say the least, “very uncomfortable.”
Standing in my living room in Iowa City that day Anna was an insider.
Growing up in Gloucester, she in many ways was not.
As it happens, I spent many summer weeks in Gloucester as a kid. To me, Gloucester was the Wreck of the Hesperus, the Gorton’s fisherman, and the reef of Norman’s Woe. Ten Pound Island and the Yankee Clipper fishing fleet, offering half-day trips for cod, pollock, and cusk. Gloucester was the small restaurant on the approach to Bass Rocks that my grandfather called “Goo Foo” – the d’s had long ago fallen off the signboard, and no one ever thought to replace them. I knew it as a tourist, yes, but I also knew it before Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm brought George Clooney to town, making it a permanent stop on Hollywood’s on-location tour.
Anna, meanwhile, knew a very different place, a mix of working class and patrician New England, ethnically Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, and Protestant. Her dad was an art dealer. Her mom, a teacher. Both had doctorates in education from Harvard University. Anna, a “white, privileged female,” should have fit right in.
Only, she didn’t.
She recalls sensing this as early as kindergarten, when her teacher often asked her to write her name on the board: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. (She has since dropped “Greenbaum,” her father’s surname, to make it easier for readers.) “It was a very Jewish name to write on the board,” Anna told me. “I think at that point, I started to feel the difference.”
Anna’s family was active in the local conservative synagogue, Ahavath Achim. Her parents led Shabbat services. Her mom was the first female president of the synagogue. Anna went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. In high school, she played lacrosse, and began to stand out in more obvious, physical ways. “All the girls had straight, blondey, browny hair, and little noses,” she recalls. “My hair got curly.”
Things like sailing and skiing came naturally to other New Englanders. Anna’s family had to work at them.
“I was aware of myself being Jewish,” she said. “And it was important for me to fit in to a non-Jewish society.”
Anna’s early short stories, she told me, reflected this.
“The first short story I published in Shenandoah, ‘Proof We Exist,’ is about a 70-year-old WASP man living in Maine, with the last name Seed,” she says. “I was writing about the people I longed to be and not the person I was.
“I was so far from writing about myself,” she continued. “It took me a long time to do that. Even when I first started writing about young women, they were not Jewish. It took me a long time to open up to that aspect of my identity.”
“In my writing, I’ve gotten closer and closer to the things that really matter to me.”
3. Russian Dolls
The Little Bride is a beautiful book. In some ways, a writer’s book, with intricate, deeply moving language, powerful symbolism (one my favorite scenes depicts Minna, a new bride, literally blindfolded during her wedding reception), and vivid metaphor.
“New York is like being in the middle of a parade where everyone has been called home, all at once, in all different directions,” Anna writes.
And: “He was thin in the way of cellar insects, as if made to slip through cracks.”
“He was the sort of man that could locate praise in a bowl of teeth.”
There is a playful, riddle-like quality to the prose that, to me, evoked Russian dolls — “She dreamed the kind of dreams that seemed to be dreams of other dreams” and “He was like a boy actor playing a man actor playing a boy” and “He was like two men, the miner and the mined … and the mined man was two men, too, one stripped empty, the other filled back up with rage” — suggestive of the selves that we hide within ourselves.
More than once, I found myself nodding along in recognition. “So a decision was made. Or rather a decision was not not-made, and she came to Odessa by not not-coming.” Sure. That’s the same way a dozen years ago I moved to Washington, D.C.
Yet The Little Bride is also a sweeping historical novel about a Jewish woman’s journey: from the crowded streets of Odessa on the northwest shore of the Black Sea, Imperial Russia’s fourth largest city — where Jews faced four horrific pogroms in the 19th century — to the vast, harsh plains of South Dakota. The middle of a continent. Where Jews were largely unknown.
The narrative is in some ways reminiscent of biblical narrative. Minna leaves the land she knows and goes forth into the unknown, just like Abraham. She struggles to conceive, like Sarah. Max’s two sons, Jacob and Samuel, evoke Jacob (the angel wrestler) and Esau (the rough hunter), respectively, and, like the biblical Jacob, each prove capable of devastating betrayal.
In Judaism, memory is an obligation. Zachor. Remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Remember to keep Shabbat. Remember the Holocaust. In The Little Bride, memory sometimes feels fungible, not quite reliable. “Like any moment one waited for,” Anna writes, “Minna did not experience it so much as she saw herself experiencing it, so that as soon as it was over her memory of it was already made.”
There were times when twisting, circular sentences left me scratching my head, grappling for meaning. “Knowing the opposite of a thing,” Anna writes, “often seemed to Minna to be the same as knowing the thing itself.”
More often, the Lewis Carroll-like prose landed effortlessly, with a flash of insight: “They were never almost anywhere but the place they’d been a half hour ago.”
It’s a description of a ship crossing an ocean. But it could be almost anything. A person seeking a job. A couple having the same old fight.
A couple of yeshiva bochers, talking about the nature of God.
4. “It’s only a cross”
In The Little Bride, Anna tells the story of Jewish characters struggling to live Jewish lives, trying to understand what that means, and in that way, her writing is much closer to her experience. These are the characters she has been waiting for. Or, maybe, these are the characters that have been waiting for her.
“She learned to concentrate on not concentrating,” Anna writes of Minna, “to let her mind spread out, puddle-like, far enough from the body that the body was forgotten. Or at least silenced. A calm fell over her limbs. She wondered if this was prayer. If prayer was nothing more than a giving in, like sickness — if you weren’t required to believe, only to stop struggling.”
Reading this, it’s impossible for me to not hear echoes “Is My Toddler More Jewish than Me?”, a recent article Anna wrote for the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com, in which Anna writes about her conflicted relationship with Judaism, made more acute as her toddler, Sylvie, embraces Jewish ritual with the passion and joy of a zealot.
“Maybe we’re complicating what could be simple, if we stopped trying to figure it out,” Anna concluded in the blog post. “Maybe, instead of working so hard to protect Sylvie from our own experience, we should open ourselves to hers. We, after all, are the ones who sit or stand in synagogue now and have no clue where we are. We focus on the cantor being too operatic or the siddurs too outdated because we are new to the synagogues, yes, but also because we are scared of just being there, not as Sylvie’s parents – thinking, figuring – but as ourselves.”
There is a scene, toward the end of the novel: an accident has destroyed the family’s sod home, leaving it in ruins. Minna and Max are taken in by a German couple, Christians. Living in their home, Max feels assaulted by the cross hanging above the door.
“They expect us to look at this little man,” Max says, indignant.
“Motke,” Minna says, “it’s only a cross. … There is no little man.”
In Minna’s rejoinder, as in Minna’s name, I recognize Anna.
“Why am I Jewish?” Anna told me in Park Slope. “Why am I here and not in church? I don’t know that it matters if I come to religion as a Jew or a Catholic or anything else. I do it as a Jew because I am a Jew.”
This is, at its core, a novel about Jewish questions, Jewish experience.
But it is also, as with some of Anna’s early stories, more broadly about choice. Specifically, Minna’s choices. Whether to leave Odessa. Whether to stay with Max. Whether to return to him.
Thinking about this, I’m reminded of my favorite definition of theme, from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Theme, Burroway explains, is not what a novel is about, but, rather, what about what it’s about.
The Little Bride is a novel about choice. But what about choice?
“She had a choice,” Anna writes. “Which Minna used to think was the same as freedom.”
In fact, The Little Bride suggests, paradoxically, the opposite may be true. Max, who lives by a strict set of rules — God commands: what to eat, what to wear, how to act; there are few, if any existential questions — may just have more freedom than Minna.
By way of explaining, Anna posits the following scenario. Say you are teaching a creative writing workshop. You could tell your students: “Just write for 15 minutes. Something. Anything.” This, though, can be paralyzing. So instead, have them write for 15 minutes describing a barn from the point of view of a man whose has just learned his son has died – the classic John Gardner exercise.
“They suddenly have parameters,” Anna says. “They can just go.”
“You could love anyone, [Minna] thought, if you needed to,” Anna writes. “And in a curious way, not in spite of her need but because of it, because she was hungry and trapped, she felt safe.” Safe, in a moment when there are no decisions to make. Trapped, and therefore free.
“I am fascinated by people who join up — it could be Orthodox Judaism or the hard core punk scene — but they join in a very extreme, very intense, total way, and the idea is about following the rules. There’s a lot of liberty in that — a lot of comfort in it … I have a deep understanding of the appeal that kind of faith and fervor can hold.”
Here, Anna segues.
“In my early years as a writer,” she says, “I felt like I had to write. But some part of me wanted to stop. There was a real appeal for me to do something where the answers were provided … just to have a job or be in a community where it was clear what I was supposed to do. That would’ve been easier.”
“At its base, there’s this relationship to writing itself. Writing is so scary and unknown. When writing fiction, no one tells you what to do. There’s terror in having freedom.”
The Little Bride is, in this way, a novel about writing. Which brings me back, Russian doll-like, to the Anna I knew in the first place.
The house was packed to bursting. It was a simple enough premise, yet I had never been to a reading structured the same way: favorite passages delivered by a long list of participants, both published authors and anonymous enthusiasts. Nobody occupied the podium for significantly longer than five minutes. Covered in the panorama: the opening of “Little Expressionless Animals,” the introduction of mathematically intricate Everything and More (about getting out of bed in the morning), self-loathing reflections on the cruise-ship hypnotist from essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a few pages of “Good Old Neon,” a good deal from the diving board in “Forever Overhead,” one of the more fiendish relationship monologues in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an introductory, in-flight sequence from The Pale King (its then recent release, the ostensible spark for the event) and several selections from Infinite Jest, including, most memorably, Don Gately’s dialogue with the specter from his hospital bed and the footnote on the fate of Avril Incandenza’s beloved dog.
The David Foster Wallace Memorial Readathon spanned three to four hours in the basement of Greenpoint bookstore WORD. Not everyone saw it through; the crowd thinned just a little for the latter half. Now and again my own attention took trips around the block and back.
But can I say this? You could feel the love. Here was a group turned out to commemorate the brilliance of one guy’s colossal strivings, his dogged humility, the beautiful nuance and intricate recursions of a mind pushing past the simple given, which mind was everywhere and nowhere in the spaces between those of us gathered to follow his words as they were given life, and enlivened in turn, by each speaker, the glittering humor in their eyes, a sense of having been found. What experience the author mined at extremes of individual solitude gained in the audience a forgiveness, a redemption, a gentle receptivity of spirit. That feeling belonged to everyone.
The point, it became enormously clear, was not that David Foster Wallace stepped wretchedly into the inky hereafter, leaving us only to mourn, to puzzle the question of his life, or to take heed by seeing around his work to “The Depressed Person.” It was that he first succeeded at writing volume on volume of powerful prose, fiction and non, the concentrated, interwoven achievement of which we could feel, supersedes — present tense — the fragmenting wonder-farm telenexus in which every last one of our imaginations dissolve on the descent to wherever it is we will land in our desire to pass on whatever it is we will pass on.
And by “us,” zooming out now in my longing from that one room in Greenpoint, I mean, people. Everyone.
To anchor a marathon reading an author must have created a singular story. As it happens, the Wallace reading at WORD registered among the first in a decided upswing in recent marathon literary events. In the past year, New York City has seen and heard readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, to bend genres, which the marathon reading inherently does, Elevator Repair Service’s productions of The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby.
As these things usually go, lit marathons happen during the holiday season and June 16th AKA Bloomsday. The New York City marathon reading in longest standing is actually not of fiction but poetry: the St. Mark’s Church New Year’s event during which scores of poets give breath to their own verse and that of others. It dates to the ’70s. When they opened a new community space in Greenpoint, editors at lit journal Triple Canopy were well aware in choosing to organize a reading in late January (duration: 53 hours) that a motley group of NYC artists had once gathered every New Year’s Day at the Paula Cooper Gallery to orate Stein’s The Making of Americans; the practice began in the ’80s, going on hiatus with the new millennium’s arrival. On both the East and West Coasts, Bloomsday inspires numerous lit marathons around Joyce, whether the text is Ulysses or, for the more fearless, those willing to snatch beauty and truth from the mouth of nonsense, Finnegans Wake. With the holiday in mind, the Housing Works in Soho stages a four-hour reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In response to popular sentiment, the same organizers played a part last November in bringing to fruition a reading of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” near what was then occupied Liberty Square.
As well, the novelist Jonathan Lethem undertook, with help, a marathon reading of his own Chronic City over several nights in the fall of 2009.
Lynne Tillman, author most recently of novel American Genius, A Comedy and story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, has participated in several recent marathon events. When asked what might illuminate the trend, she spoke to an unlikely source of interest: “The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading” conducted initially in 2007 and subsequently reenacted annually at MOMA (see the current video installation, “9 Scripts from a Nation at War”). As the prison camp at Guantanamo continues to operate, a collective of artists bring unedited transcripts of U.S. military tribunals to the public eye.
Another source from the art scene is performance artist Marshall Weber, who, since 1994, has delivered solo lit marathons of titles ranging from William Vollmann’s The Rifles to Homer’s The Odyssey to The Bible. As for what might spur such a marathon into being, Weber writes on the Brooklyn Artists Alliance’s website: “The cycle is an evocation of the hope contained in human literature and the joy of street reading as well as an exorcism of the demonic forces of illiteracy, fundamentalism and textural literalism.”
Regarding the marathon reading, poet Barbara Swift Bauer offers by e-mail: “I think what’s important is that it is a way of publicly honoring the writer.” There is something wonderful about how a great author’s voice refracts through a reading audience gathered for such an observance. Writing is a solitary activity; writing a novel especially so. Just imagining the effort required is enough to make many readers, or reading attendees, go pale. We think of novelists almost as advertisements of individuality, exemplary studies of what a person can achieve in solitude. In a marathon reading, something of the division between individual and collective is closed: see anonymous members of the audience glow as the author’s individuated voice carries through them. Not coincidentally, such readers’ own individuality stands out all the more: which passage of the author’s work did the reader choose? How does the reader deliver the given passage that so many of us looking on have read before?
In Constantine’s Sword, his epic history punctuated by memoir, novelist and historian James Carroll envisages the birth of Christianity unfolding. In the chapter called “The Healing Circle,” he correlates how he and other loved ones grieved the loss of a friend with the methods those nearest to Jesus might have followed in commemorating his passing:
Lament. Texts. Silence. Stories. Food. Drink. Songs. More texts. Poems. We wove a web of meanings that joined us…Our circle was an extended American version of the Irish wake, of Italian keening, of African drumming in honor of ancestors. It was a version of the Jewish custom of ‘sitting shiva,’ from the Hebrew word for seven, referring to the seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one…To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be.
With its immersive, beatific reach the lit marathon stands in funny relation to organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. At a time when church attendance in many parts of the country is down, even as the voting power of the evangelical bloc stands in ever sheerer relief, children of the heartland and of the South continue to head for the coasts, where lit marathons multiply.
There exists a definite likeness with organized religion’s governing impulse in the reverence inherent to the marathon reading. In one sense, carrying on to an audience like a non-ordained minister is the height of Christian heresy (though, certainly, most fiction is less offensive than, say, your average goth rocker’s sacrilegious imagery); in another, a novel might be the brilliant lived sermon that found no root in organized religion as currently composited. Faith and doubt exist in dialectic, after all. It is difficult to believe the person who claims to know one while having no experience of the other.
Perhaps it is the seeming disproportion of a full novel’s demands that gives readers in the heartland pause. On his having steered clear of the lit marathon phenomenon, one Midwestern-based novelist writes, “People here don’t seem to think that they should make a lengthy claim upon your attention.” Another, raised in the South, reflects that perhaps he has never participated in a lit marathon for the simple reason that he has “always been inclined toward an early bedtime.” A veteran of many a writers’ conference and their attendant readings refers to the marathon variety as “a perfect storm of not-likingness.”
In that inclination for avoidance, we can recognize that the work of an artist must remain a thing apart. Tillman shakes off religious connotation in describing the pull of the marathon, even as her language borders it: “There’s so little ritual in our lives, or at least in my life, and there is an aspect to these marathons that’s ritualistic. It’s about as close to ritual as I get. Myself, I don’t use that kind of language, but there’s something, I would say, about participating in a reading in a room full of people, most of whom you don’t know, and being part of an event that is one of reverence for books, and love of books. There isn’t all that much love of books in our culture anymore—not the larger culture.”
The marathon reading usually gives fair indication of that intra-fictional divide between the canonical, the career-driven, and the striving — even as any feeling of great division melts away over the marathon’s immersive course. In the latter hours of a long reading, it can feel that the story being told is the only story there is to tell, or at least the only one that could bring together the group with whom you as listener or reader have now weathered so many hours.
“There were maybe 40 people around for the conclusion near midnight Sunday night,” wrote Sam Frank of Triple Canopy. “People kept coming in to this room full of cult members, the Church of Stein, consecrating our new space with half a million words.” Said Amanda Bullock, director of public programming at Housing Works (she dubbed their reading of Dickens’ The Christmas Carol “a 5k”): “It’s fun I think for the readers to read the work of someone they admire, in tribute, and to all hang out.”
Of participating as both reader and listener, Tillman muses, “The distribution of pleasure is greater. You have a more comradely feeling with your fellow readers, and since it’s not your own work, it’s less nerve-wracking. I mean, you want to do a good job because you want to do a good job; but it’s not your work. When I was a kid, I got a lot of pleasure being read to; if you can get into that mood, and because a marathon is so long, maybe it allows you to get there, you can feel more dreamy. Also there’s something about it that may be very comforting, like watching the same movie again.”
Seizing something like a movie’s active engagement, recent years on the West Coast find theater groups such as Word for Word trying on for marathon-size new titles like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, while, out east, the Elevator Repair Service ushered in theatergoers by the hundreds to experience their rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As imagined by Elevator Repair Service amid the boredom of weird modern office-place pastiche, Fitzgerald’s novel takes possession of the workers and whatever unspoken ambition brought them there: the slump-shouldered drone at the outmoded computer takes on the role of Nick; the janitor becomes Tom, the well-dressed sales rep, Daisy. The distant, slow-speaking boss assumes the guise within the guise of Gatsby himself. The story never leaves the one room.
This particular marathon’s focus is not a novel to the exclusion of all else, but the manner in which we bridge Fitzgerald’s words with our present being. The actors win laughter by calling attention to how their own unique features do — or do not — match the ideal of those described on the page. Jim Fletcher, who plays Gatsby, tilts his head to show a pronounced bald spot as Nick reads of his host’s exemplary head of hair. An antic hive of allusiveness (rarely have sound effects been so integral to a marathon reading), Gatz owes much to the sensibility of a show like The Simpsons: the modernist classic spruced up by myriad post-modern threads. The woodenness with which Fletcher speaks Gatsby’s lines underscores the character’s dubious identity; it also hints at how a novel, that which aspires to stand outside time, cannot but recede, adopt layers of age that will either diminish or augment its resonance. In this way, those famous closing lines of Fitzgerald’s seem to rattle the limitation of their own artifice (“boats against…”), a flair that would ripple outward in the later work of such authors as Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Carter, Coover, DeLillo, Pynchon — and Wallace.
If it has happened yet, no one told me, but to imagine a marathon reading around Infinite Jest makes for an entrancing pause. (Make it in summer when teachers are free; encourage costume; start working on those pharmaceutical pronunciations.) Few novels parade an aesthetic of such exhaustive intelligence, the humor of All Too Much; the characters on its pages grapple with their own slides and recoveries in the way of All Too Much. The book’s addictive depths were built to give ballast.
Where Fitzgerald casts feeling across the brow of novelistic self-consciousness, Wallace revels in oiling and refashioning the squeaky wheel of novel-ness, to arrive at what the enterprise represents at its core, the entire literary lineage. The lit marathon tempts a similarly immense question by bringing the reader out of seclusion. Of the way it wraps around us, exhausts our capacity to pay attention while also abiding our coming and goings — we can drop in, drop out, and when we get back, chances are good it will still be there — the poet Susan Terris, echoing Tillman, reflects, “I guess the singular joy of the marathon reading is being read aloud to, which most of us love — exactly in the same way we did when we were children.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes